Recognizing Value in Paintings: Signatures, Initials, and Unsigned Paintings

Taking some of the mystery out of recognizing value in Fine Art Paintings is a topic I get many e-mails on. 31 Club Members call and e-mail me about wonderful paintings they’d like to buy, but the artist can’t be identified. Maybe there are only initials, a signature that can’t be read, or just simply a monogram with a figure on the painting. Perhaps the signature can be read, but the artist is not in the guides on paintings. People have often said to me, “I liked the painting, but I didn’t purchase it because I couldn’t identify it.” This could be a huge mistake.

If you judge a painting to be worth $400 because of the frame, the content, and quality of the work, and you can purchase it for about $100, then your decision is made. Even if the painting is not signed, you might not want to hesitate to purchase it. I have seen paintings in beautiful frames sell for $100, and after a little research, it was discovered that the frame was a Newcomb-Macklin frame worth up to $1,000. And this might be a real shocker: Some vintage frames have been known to bring over $100,000. And, unsigned paintings can still sell for thousands, as William shared with me when he saw an unsigned painting sell for over $5,000.

I have seen signatures appear after the painting had been cleaned and have found signatures hidden behind a frame. So, if you buy a painting for a few dollars and know that it’s worth more than four times what you paid for it, then it has met our rule for buying. Anything from there that enhances its value is only a plus.

I’ve accumulated many secrets over the past 45 years in this business and I’ve shared many of them them in my book. Today, I’ll share one of those secrets with you.

Did you know that, like authors who’ve written under pen names, artists also painted under alternate names? Did you know Leon Gaspard also painted under the name Leon Schulman and John Edward Castagno used the name Czako? Artists painted under alternate names, and they are listed in the back of American Signatures and Monograms by John Castagno. In the back of this book on signatures and monograms, you will also find the initials used by some of the greatest artists to ever decorate a canvas. If you find a painting signed with only initials, the identity of that artist might be discovered right here in this book. If you’re serious about finding valuable paintings, there might be a true treasure waiting for you because others didn’t have this information, but you did. Castagno’s books are very expensive, but if your interest lies in this area, his books will prove to be key tools for you. The link to the book is at then end of my Blog.

At a house I was called to about several items, I stumbled across a painting of an Indian Chief that looked to be unsigned. I asked what they were asking for it. The answer came quickly: $250. I thought that was a good price, but I asked if I could take it out of the frame. They agreed, and lo and behold, there was a signature behind the frame I didn’t recognize. I had just made a very serious mistake.

You see, the owner quickly asked if I would mind if they waited another day before they sold the painting. We had already settled on several other items I was purchasing, and I didn’t want to miss out on those items as well, but I said, “Sure” anyway.

That evening I quickly researched the painting and found that it was worth about $10,000. I called back the next day but they told me that their daughter really liked the painting, so they’ve decided it should stay in the family. You see, they had done their research after I left, also. So, remember this story, and keep this in mind: If you come to the conclusion that something should be purchased, stop trying to convince yourself further and simply buy it.

You may find that this approach will produce several paintings that will only return you a small profit, but by taking a risk, you might end up with a piece that will make your whole year or even more.

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  • Hi i read what you have to say about paintings not signed i have two one is of a ship out at sea it is done on glass,i think it is done in water,the other is oil again a ship out at sea i bought this one because i liked it so much the detail was so good it is small not sure of size 12ins across maybe 8ins down the frame is done in heavy gold,i no this not much for you to go on im on holiday at the moment and when i go home i could take photos of them and send them to you.
    please oblige
    fred connor

  • WorthPoint:

    I just came across your article, and it is very informative with many important notes.

    I like it very much.

    And, thank you for your kind comments about my “signature books”.

    John Castagno

  • Jeff

    i have a painting that i have no clue about because i bought my house and it was in the crawl space i was wondering if you could tell me a little about it? its a nature ouil painting and it is signed W. WLK

  • I wonder if they will ever have some sort of over the counter “carbon dating” system that can take place on a chip of the paint?

  • Tricia Barker

    I recently have acquired several painting that are approximately 100 years old. Some of the artists are Cushman Parker and Karl Anderson. They wood slat backings. They are extremely old looking, but in decent shape. I don’t know where to start to find the values of approximatley 70 paintings. Please help.

    Thank you,

  • To Whom It May Concern:

    I never used the pyseudonym “CZAKO”. Czako was the name of the cat pictured in my
    my 1st volume on American Artists…..the painting of Czako was done by me…….
    somehow someone mixed up the names.
    John Edward Castagno

  • FM

    You talk of a “serious mistake” but would you have been happy in yourself to give the family a mere $250 when the painting was worth $10,000?

  • Tyson

    Hey there, I have a question about a large painting I have, I think it’s an oil painting it’s about 5ft tall and 4 ft wide. I believe it’s an oil painting but very textured, I also believe it’s from Ontario but not quite sure, it’s a sad looking painting with characters that resemble picasso type art it took me a while to find the initials but finally found them in the dark bottom of the left hand corner it sais CLA then tapers off and you cant read the rest. The date beside the name is 1989 pictures of a man dying with a stab wound, skeletons flying above, a mom holding an evil child with a evil cat and pointing down a river of lava and fire, I know that sounds very evil but it’s a big nice painting none the less and I need to figure out the artist:) thx for reading my long post hope to hear from you.

  • Great paintings! This is the kind of info that are meant to be shared across the net. Shame on the search engines for now not positioning this post higher! Come on over and discuss with my website . Thanks =)

  • Wow, i felt the same way. Check out this old realistic painting of the New York city landscape. It’s really the most mind blowing paintings I have seen. So I bought it, even though it’s not signed. Yet, the signature might be hidden. Pictures here >> if anyone has any comments they would like to share, feel free to contact me.

  • william

    Hello I found a oil painting sign bye a person name kruuse No first name just Kruuse How can I find out more info on this artist and maybe what it worth

  • william

    Hello I found a oil painting sign bye a person name kruuse No first name just Kruuse How can I find out more info on this artist and maybe what it worth

    anyone has any comments they would like to share, feel free to contact me.

  • elizabeth windsor

    My grandmother had a very nice collection of paintings and when she died 10 years ago, each of her children and grandchildren got to pick one in an established order (1-2-3, then 3-2-1 etc.) I chose a small oil painting of two porcelain Chinese dolls because I had loved it as a child even though it was thought to be not valuable because we thought it was unsigned. All my cousins thought I was foolish — but I wanted it for the memory and not its monetary value. I had it cleaned and — lo and behold — a maroon signature appeared on the green background that had been invisible before. The artist was a well-known artist in London around the end of the 19th century and the painting was valued at somewhere between 10 – 15 thousand dollars. Of course, I would never sell it, but it reinforces for me the point of art is to be enjoyed and loved — not that you want to get ripped off — but if you lvoe something you should buy it if it’s worth something to you and not necessarily be concerned about its value to others. You might be surprised.

  • jonathon dempsey

    I’ve seen an oil painting in an UK auction house I am really interested in because it is purportedly by a student of a much admired early Twentieth century Japanese artist.
    It is unsigned and sits in a large damaged frame.
    The auctioneers are quoting £200-250. Works by the original artist are highly sought after, some fetching tens of thousands of sterling pounds. I know a little about Ukiyo-e but not more contemporary artists. I’m very tempted to try and buy it, but would like your advice. You suggest that an unsigned work could still be valuable…

  • I found a beautiful painting of a Cowboy crossing a river with his dog. It is framed behind glass. There is no signature and I can’t tell if its just a print. How can I find out if it has any alue?

  • Wilson

    Hi, I have a painting signed H.T.S can you tell me who he is ? Or vaule of his paintings ?

  • S Kazi

    I have a large oil painting possibly of British origin, with initial ‘S’ at the bottom which is placed in a in a vertically shaped rhombus.

    How can I identify the name of the artist and also value the oil painting?

  • i have an american indian oil painting with only the initials ogw as a signiture.Who is the artist? might it be of any value?

  • I inherited a beautiful painting with an old ornate frame. The scene is a road starting on the front left side going to the right side with a couple reddish trees( one short, one tall. Below on right center is a house & shed. Only the back of roof and white gable of house shows. Beside on left side is a red slanted roofed shed. That middle area is rotting wood fenced surround. There are a few trees and then the painting goes straight up to 2 mountains/hills. Slight blue sky on right-graying clouds on left. It is signed John F. Eisar or Feasrt/Fisar??I haven’t a clue about the paint for the value! Would appreciate any info~~~
    Jane Alexander

    • I was finally able to read the signature! It was John E. Ensor! On the bottom left of the picture was “PEACEFUL COUNTRYSIDE” TMC #339. I looked Online for Paintings by this Artist and found many but-t-t nothing like this one!!

  • Michael Donoian

    I have a painted that is not on canvas I was told that it was over 100 years old there is no signature on it. Where can I take it to have it appraised?

  • joan rollins

    I have 3 oil paintings by the same artist with the initials A. E. W. One is dated 1892. We received them from my husband’s mother’s estate and have no idea who the artist is. They need cleaning and some restoration which we will have done so they can be continued to be passed down to further generations.

  • Ernest

    Hi I have one painting but i can§t read the signature. I would be happy to send a photo

    • Rodolfo Robles Sr.

      I found in a garage sale two small paintings in old frames which looked very old. The name I gave to them was the two old Irish men, both have well detailed long white beards; smoking long pipes, wearing a small hat with one feather on the side, fairly big noses and a very peculiar look of a country tire old man. Paintings show the person from the upper section of his chest up and no arms. Both paintings obviously done by the same painter not only indicated by the touches of the painting brush, the color and sadness in the expression but also by the initials on the same area, the lower right side, NDYK. I don’t get tire of looking at the paint details and the message they create. Any clues?, please help me, Mr. Ernest.

  • dorothy sparks

    i have a paint ing and i know it is very old but i cant find a name. the frame is kinda worn. i think it looks like something c.h. shearers would paint. it is a forest with a brook running though it with rocks the picture is held in by nails and had a wire hanger to hang it with. i really think it is a shearers if you would like ill send a picture thank you

  • marie says: osumanu haruna

    july28,2015 I have a painting signed haruna 95and on the back artist osumanu haruna.theres houses in a village,a little boy crawling on the ground grabbing for a snake and two men with sticks in their hand trying to kill the snake. looks like it was made with coconut but im not sure.

  • linda crayton

    I have a painting of JESUS at the well with a unusual sig. it looks like oblong box with either a check or lg. c in it. it looks like a oil painting.

  • Deanna Grissom

    To the person who ask if one could be happy with buying a painting for 250.00 when it was worth 10,000.00 the simple answer is Yes. People who buy unsigned and take that chance? are not doing it for their health and while I am certain YOU expect to get paid at your job, so do we. They offered a price and he met it. THEY should have done their homework. It is not our place to educate you or to help you.

  • Ihave a very old paintig try to find out who painted it

    Have very old painting trying to find out who painted it cant read signature

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